Stockbroker Schwab moves into options

A Charles Schwab sign hangs on the side of the building in Austin, Tex.

Kai Ryssdal: So what can you do with more wireless access? Why, trade stocks on it, of course. Charles Schwab said today it's buying OptionsXpress for $1 billion. The deal will let regular investors trade ever more complex securities right from their Schwab online accounts.

Options are a big moneymaker for Wall Street, as we learned during the financial crisis. But it remains to be seen whether they'll do the same for regular folk. Our New York bureau chief Heidi Moore reports.


Heidi Moore: After the financial crisis, we don't know if Wall Street and Main Street will ever really end up in the same neighborhood. But let's say they're building some connecting roads.

One of those is for options trading, a business Charles Schwab hopes to grow. Andy Nybo, an analyst with Tabb Group, says options give investors the choice to bet stocks will hit a particular price.

Andy Nybo: They allow an investor to have a view on a stock, whether it's going to go up or down.

You buy options without buying the stock, which makes them more speculative. And you can also use options to bet on commodities like oil or corn.

On Wall Street, options trading is one of the few booming businesses left. It's grown at least 8 percent a year since 2002. The New York Stock Exchange wanted a piece of it, which is why it's merging with Germany's biggest exchange. Schwab also wants customers who make those options bets, whether they're Mom-and-Pop or their financial advisers.

Josh Brown: You're not going to see a reverse in course in how much investors use options. It's going to be a permanent part of the landscape.

Options traders also have what financial firms want. Schwab says options customers tend to have three times more money, trade six times more often, and use Schwab's banking services more than regular clients.

Brown: Schwab is taking something away before one of their competitors can get it.

It also puts more power in the hands of the individual investor, says Nybo.

Nybo: A retail investor can log in today and get access to many of the same tools that the most sophisticated investors on Wall Street use.

The only question, of course, is whether regular investors will know what to do with all that power.

In New York, I'm Heidi Moore for Marketplace.

About the author

Heidi N. Moore is The Guardian's U.S. finance and economics editor. She was formerly the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace.

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